City council looks to honor Air Atlanta founder at Hartsfield-Jackson

Concourse D to get a ceremonial renaming in honor of Black entrepreneur
Rendering of what Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport's Concourse D will look like after a $1.4 billion widening project.

Credit: Source: Hartsfield-Jackson

Credit: Source: Hartsfield-Jackson

Rendering of what Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport's Concourse D will look like after a $1.4 billion widening project.

Atlanta officials love to rename roads and airport terminals to honor local luminaries, turning downtown street signs into a who’s who of the city and resulting in Hartsfield-Jackson’s double-barreled name.

Now, City Council members are working to rename part of the airport for a Black entrepreneur who once started an airline — but they ran into some stumbling blocks.

The honoree: Michael R. Hollis, who in the 1980s launched a now-defunct carrier called Air Atlanta when he was in his 20s. In addition to founding an airline, he also played roles in launching a broadcasting company, a petroleum business and a debt-collections firm. Hollis died in 2012 at the age of 58.

What at the airport do councilmembers wish to rename? Concourse D, the narrowest concourse at the Atlanta airport. Concourse D is undergoing a massive expansion project with the help of federal funding from the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure law, to better accommodate the thousands of passengers that push through its walkways and gate areas on a daily basis.

Michael R. Hollis started an airline company before he was 30.

Credit: AJC file

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Credit: AJC file

At a committee meeting on Wednesday, there were no objections by councilmembers to honoring Hollis. But a member of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ cabinet said the administration wasn’t consulted about the legislation in advance, and an airport official said a formal renaming — rather than a ceremonial one — could cause confusion for passengers, among other problems.

City councilmembers drafted a proposed ordinance to rename Concourse D as the Michael R. Hollis Concourse and introduced it at its most recent full council meeting March 4. On Wednesday, a parade of supporters of Hollis streamed into a council committee meeting to speak in favor of the renaming, including former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Reed called Hollis’s story “one of the great Atlanta stories” and said what Hollis accomplished was “a source of inspiration.”

The renaming would “make sure that every little girl and every little boy knows that there was a man named Michael Hollis who built one of the most important Black-owned airlines in the United States of America, and he did it right here in the city of Atlanta, a place where you bring and build your dreams,” Reed said.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, wrote a letter in support of the concourse renaming, calling it “a fitting tribute to an icon in the airline industry.”

“At a time when so few Black businesses existed in the United States, let alone thrived, Mr. Hollis’s ambition could not be deterred,” Johnson wrote. “While the company ultimately did not survive, due to a series of events that were beyond its control, Mr. Hollis’s tenacity helped put Atlanta on the map of Black entrepreneurship and innovation.”

However, an airport executive then brought up an awkward issue, which officials had sought to address with a hasty revision to the legislation.

“There are a lot of things that comport with (having) the concourses named A, B, C and D on tickets and other wayfinding measures, so as not to confuse the public,” said Michael Smith, senior deputy general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson. Concourse D is one of seven concourses at the world’s busiest airport, along with Concourses T, A, B, C, E and F. Gates are also labeled by the concourse letter, such as gate D16.

Smith said a revision to the legislation aimed to “make sure that we were talking ‘ceremonial’ in terms of signage, whatever,” without changing operational uses. He noted that it could “at the same time respect the wishes of council to honor Mr. Hollis.”

A member of Dickens’ cabinet, Deputy Chief Operating Officer LaChandra Burks, then took the mic to remind councilmembers of “our public process that we have whenever we are working on changing a name or honoring an individual.” One version of the legislation sought to waive a process for a neighborhood planning unit to review the renaming, before it was changed to be a ceremonial renaming.

“We did not see this before it was introduced,” Burks said. “We were not a part of the writing of it.”

Councilmember Byron D. Amos, who introduced the legislation and chairs the transportation committee, acknowledged: “We did not include the administration... or the airport” in discussions on the renaming. “Those are partners that really should have been at the table,” he said.

Councilmember Antonio Lewis said he was “nervous about that slippery slope” of renaming something without following certain processes. “I live in a district with a lot of streets named after Confederate soldiers and they’re trying to change the names,” Lewis said.

Lewis said there have been recent discussions about renaming Lee Street for either former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Councilmember Michael Julian Bond or the late former city council president and judge Marvin Arrington Sr.

A city attorney said she would look at what reviews are necessary. Councilmember Alex Wan moved to hold the legislation. “You all need to get this straight,” Wan said. His motion to hold failed to get enough votes.

As an alternative, Councilmember Dustin Hillis made a motion to forward it to the full council with no recommendation, on condition that the city’s Law Department respond and correct any legal issues with the legislation.

That motion got enough votes. The full council voted for the measure Monday.

“As the original author of this paper, I have spoken to the administration and they have enlightened me as far as the process,” Amos said. “With that motion, I will definitely ensure that we have those conversations.”